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Brian Head fire pushes out 750 residents and visitors

Published June 19, 2017 9:30 pm

Southern Utah fire • As the outlook improves, residents and visitors recount fear before the march of flames that destroyed one house in a small resort town.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Brian Head Resort • Clayton Calloway was leaving Brian Head at about noon Saturday, driving north on State Route 143, when he came upon a small fire in forest and brush near the roadway. It didn't appear overly serious; a few town firefighters were already on the scene.

"I thought, 'Man, they got this,' " Calloway recalled Sunday.

But the small brush fire quickly transformed into an inferno, racing uphill toward hundreds of high-end homes in the southern Utah resort town. By the time Calloway flipped around and drove back to Brian Head, just a mile away, an evacuation order for part of the community had been issued.

The evacuation area included Apple Annie's Country Store, which Calloway owns with his wife. So the couple hustled to a friend's house a safe distance away and watched the blaze advance. Then the wind picked up, and by 2:30 p.m., all of Brian Head — about 750 residents and visitors — had been placed under immediate evacuation orders.

"You could just see this wall of smoke and fire getting closer and closer," said Calloway, 57, who serves on the Brian Head Town Council. "You get this sick feeling like, 'This is it. This is going to happen.' "

Some residents and town officials figured the whole town might be lost in the uncertain moments after the blaze broke out. Brian Head includes a few stores and hotels, and about 1,200 homes and cabins. It has about 100 full-time residents.

Yet, as of Sunday evening, just one home had been destroyed; three others were damaged. Flames burned within feet of numerous others. Officials said Monday morning that 969 acres had burned and that the blaze remained totally uncontained. There were no injuries reported. State Route 143 between Parowan and Brian Head remained closed. There was no timeline on when residents will be able to return to their homes.

But several sides of the fire appeared to be partially controlled. The blaze had pushed northeast, and a handful of spot fires were visible in the forested areas closest to homes.

At least 115 firefighters were on the ground Sunday, surrounding structures and digging fire lines on the perimeter. About a dozen helicopters and air tankers dropped thousands of gallons of water and retardant throughout the day.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized federal funds Sunday to help Utah pay for battling the fire, which is burning on state and private land and is threatening homes, business and watershed areas.

Authorities said the fire was man made, though they declined to provide additional details citing an active investigation.

Heather Lewis and her brother Aaron Misner were hiking toward Brian Head Peak on Saturday when they saw the smoke.

They had come from their homes in Boulder City, Nev., with Lewis' husband and Misner's girlfriend for a weekend at the family cabin, intent on hikes, a zip line ride and other summer adventures.

But when it became clear that the fire was continuing to grow, Lewis said the group made an about-face on the trail and headed down the mountain.

"That was our second trip up there to the cabin our parents bought recently," Lewis, 30, said in a Sunday phone call from her home in Nevada. "We'll have to replan a vacation once this all gets straightened out."

"A firefighter told us that somebody was burning debris," Misner added," and it just got out of hand."

High temperatures and low humidity, along with a steady afternoon wind from the north — a departure from the normal southerly pattern — had initially increased Sunday's firefighting challenge, said Bret Howser, Brian Head's town manager, because it was blowing the fire back toward town.

But by Sunday evening, the fire was largely burning north, he said, on Dixie National Forest lands and away from structures.

Dan Lynn has lived full time in his Brian Head condo for three years, doing snow removal and maintenance around the town. Before that, he vacationed at the condo for about 15 years when he lived in Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning, Lynn had thrown some ribs in his smoker and headed out on an ATV ride with his brother, who was visiting from Idaho. As they reached a high point near town at about noon, they spotted the smoke, he said Sunday.

"Within 20 minutes, it went from a little bit of smoke to — 'Uh oh, that's getting close to town.' So we headed back."

Soon, local firefighters were making the rounds with sirens, Lynn said, telling people to evacuate immediately.

The flames were "not moving tree to tree," he said. "It was like a wall moving through here" — a wall headed straight for the heart of Brian Head.

"When I left here, I grabbed pictures of my boys, some of my hunting stuff and a couple pairs of clothes," Lynn said. "As I was walking down those stairs, I was going, 'This might be the last time I see my condo.' That literally went through my head."

Lynn left so fast that he didn't have time to take out his ribs, and he hoped the smoker wouldn't start another fire while he was gone. (The smoker didn't flame up, he said, and the ribs turned out perfect.)

Residents and visitors were forced to evacuate in minutes Saturday; some left important medications, which they were allowed to retrieve Sunday with a police escort. One woman left behind her slow cooker that was working on tri-tip steak, which was later retrieved, and eaten, by town officials.

Lynn recounted the story Sunday evening as he sat on his condo deck, which has a bird's-eye view of town and the fire. While Brian Head remained under evacuation orders, Lynn said he had decided to return Saturday night after the fire conditions appeared to be less dangerous. He fed some firefighters fried chicken and potato salad Sunday afternoon.

Howser, who lives with his family in nearby Parowan, said he was mowing his lawn Saturday afternoon, listening to music, head down. He missed the massive plume of smoke rising over the mountains and got a call from one of the Brian Head town marshals, who told him several neighborhoods were being evacuated.

"And I was like, OK, why?" Howser said. "And he's like, 'Look out your window!' "

The town manager said a police officer pulled up at his home within minutes and said, "Get in, we're going."

Instead of hanging out with is wife and four sons Sunday for Father's Day, Howser spent his day at Brian Head Town Hall, fielding calls from reporters and worried residents, wondering whether their homes and cabins had survived.

Calloway said he and his wife had put their life savings into their store. They bought the building in 2009, and their house is directly above it. Home above, livelihood below — Calloway thought it might all be destroyed Saturday evening. He delayed his exit until the last possible moment Saturday: "If it's going to go up, then I want to see it," he said to himself.

But by Sunday, as he waited for updates in Parowan, Calloway said the outlook had clearly improved. The aerial attack on the fire had been impressive, and likely saved the town, he figured.

"It feels a lot better," he said. "They've got a lot of resources up there."


Twitter: @lramseth

Reporter Jennifer Dobner contributed to this story.






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